Are Gentrified Cities Too Greedy?

Urban renewal works in D.C. and New Orleans. But the needs of the vulnerable shouldn't be ignored.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Stacy Revere/WireImage/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Stacy Revere/WireImage/Getty Images

Let’s start with the outsourcing of public education — an effort for which both Chocolate Cities have served as America’s lab rats. New Orleans leads the nation in the percentage of privately managed charter schools (about 70), with D.C. right behind it (just less than half). When public education is dismantled, it frays the bonds of community where culture grows. It also creates a transportation nightmare that robs us of the opportunity to let economic and racial integration do its work on neighborhood schools. The New Orleans “experiment” is getting mixed marks. In the era of so-called “choice,” D.C. schools are becoming more segregated than ever.

Then there is the issue of development. Despite its success bringing in billions to develop inner-city D.C., the city keeps cooking up new ways to lure in developers as though it were 1968 and we were having a party and were worried that no one would show up. There is a push to raise the city’s quirky building-height limit. We are seeing proposals, unheard of in the Chocolate era, from Republicans in Congress who want D.C. to get a commuter tax.

In my neighborhood, Bloomingdale, the mayor has proposed giving nearly $50 million in tax dollars to help a private developer build on top of the historic McMillan Sand Filtration site, a 25-acre tract of publicly owned green space. Like many of my neighbors, I personally would love to see a park there. Their plan? Yes, you guessed it: another “mixed-use” housing development.

This is a serious question familiar to many a Manhattanite: How many condos can one city take?

Affordable Housing and the Poor-People Purge

New Orleans lacks the riches of the federal government, but has similar struggles. Even before Hurricane Katrina, like many of the postindustrial, post-civil rights, majority-black urban areas, it struggled with reduced population and tax revenue, poverty and violence. Today the devastating 2005 storm is giddily spoken of by policymakers as “an opportunity” to try out new stuff.

Others, like Loyola’s Andre Perry, have described the city as “one of the meanest places for poor people that I’ve ever seen.” After Katrina, all 7,500 of New Orleans’ public school employees were fired, which Perry says “severely impacted the black middle and working classes, who were thrust into poverty without jobs.” Way to kick ’em when they’re down. (In June — seven years later — a judge ruled the firings illegal.)